When Jesus Isn’t There
Matthew 28:1 – 15
When Jesus Isn’t There
When it seems that Jesus isn’t there ...
It didn’t get anywhere near the attention of a local football match, let alone terrorist attacks against Westerners overseas, but I’m sure you saw something in the news last weekend, of the attack on people gathered in a church in Alexandria, Egypt, a church in many ways, just like us, people doing exactly what we’re doing this morning, when a suicide bomber blew himself up, killing at least 17 people.
A few hours earlier, another church service was attacked. At least 27 people dead, and 78 wounded.
“Where was the government?” One bystander asked, as bodies were being loaded into ambulances,
“Where was God?” asked another.
Where was God?
Where was Jesus? At times like these?
And when you see images of the carnage;,
The blood soaked pews,
The rows of bodies,
And streams of injured,
Those are not uncommon, nor unreasonable questions, are they?
You don’t have to travel too far in life with too many people, before you start hearing of times, when it just seems that Jesus isn’t there,
The horrific stories that have come out of the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse,
Where was Jesus?
When we stand at the graveside of a family member or loved one,
Where was Jesus?
When hopes evaporate, and dreams crumble, relationships shatter,
Is Jesus even there?
In this very last chapter of Matthew’s gospel account, we meet some people who knew exactly what we feel in those moments.
To set the scene, Matthew was one of Jesus’ closest friends,
He was one of the 12 disciples, and he spent the 3 years of Jesus’ public ministry travelling with Jesus,
Listening to him,
Learning from him,
Seeing how God worked through him,
And then he decided to write down what he had seen and heard, for the benefit of people like us, who didn’t get to see it all first-hand.
So Matthew is not just a, disinterested historian. He’s writing because he’s convinced that Jesus is worth knowing, and knowing about.
But the fact that he’s personally invested doesn’t mean that what he’s writing is unreliable or even embellished.
These words were written down maybe in the late 50s of the first century AD. Just a bit over 20 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
And so when it first hit the bookstores, or the first century equivalent, there were hundreds, thousands even, of people around, who were actually part of the events that he describes.
If Matthew had inflated the numbers,
Or put the rose-tinted glasses over Jesus here and there,
If he’d air-bushed out some of the disciples’ failings and their slowness to get stuff,
And especially if he’d just plain made things up,
Then there’s no shortage of people at all, who could speak up to set the record straight.
A few of us were talking here just last Sunday about presentations at work conferences, and how there’s always someone who knows a bit about what someone’s presenting on, and they just cannot wait to prick holes,
To burst the person’s bubble,
To make corrections,
That’s what people are like!
And Matthew even gives us the names of people, so had we been a little closer in time to these events, we could have gone and asked them ourselves.
We live in an age when it’s right to be suspicious of fake news, but we can have great confidence, that what Matthew’s recording for us is not that.
He wants us to go and check it all out for ourselves,
So let’s do that!
As I said, these 2 women, certainly know something of that feeling that we’ve experienced, in those moments when it seems that Jesus isn’t there.
Matthew opens this section saying After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
This is Sunday morning,
Jesus had been crucified on the Friday,
Saturday was the Jewish Sabbath, the day of rest, and so there was no work or travel on Saturday, so this is the first opportunity the women have had to come back to the tomb, since late on Friday afternoon.
Do you see up in verse 61 of chapter 27, these same two women were sitting there opposite the tomb?
And can you imagine how you’ve felt since Friday afternoon?
Well, of course we can! Because for the first time in their memory, they’re feeling that weight that we’ve felt,
That feeling that Jesus isn’t there.
They’ve heard Jesus preach,
They’ve heard him speak of the good news of forgiveness and reconciliation with God,
They’d listened to his message, and realised that like everyone who’s ever lived, they had ignored and rebelled against the God who created them,
They knew that they deserved death and separation from God, but they’d heard in Jesus’ message, and seen in Jesus’ life, a welcoming by God,
They’d come to know a God who loved them, and longed for relationship with them,
And they knew that Jesus was the means of that relationship coming to all its fruition,
They knew that Jesus was their only hope for peace with God,
And for life in a world free from pain, and hurt, and suffering,
And they’d seen glimpses of that promise being fulfilled in Jesus’ ministry,
But on Friday Jesus had been taken from them,
Jesus isn’t there.
I’m sure we all know something of what feels like to have our hopes dashed, to stand, confused, amidst the debris of our broken dreams.
Imagine the gut-wrenching emptiness, if those hopes and dreams were not just what we longed for in this life, but for eternity.
For the first time since these women have known him, Jesus isn’t there.
After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
Easter is significant because Jesus isn’t there (v 1 – 4)
But in going to the tomb that first Easter morning, these women come to learn that Easter is significant, because in a completely different way, Jesus isn’t there.
The tomb, where they had seen Jesus’ body laid on Friday, is empty.
See how Matthew records it in verse 2?, 2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
I’ve certainly been to my fair share of funerals, and this hasn’t happened at any of them!
An angel, from heaven
Appearance, like lightning,
Clothes, white as snow
If you find the story of Easter hard to believe,
Because Jesus isn’t there,
Because this isn’t our usual experience,
Because this sort of thing doesn’t happen every day,
Then you’ve understood rightly what Matthew’s trying to record for us, and in fact, you’ve understood what God wants to communicate about Easter.
This is out of the ordinary,
This is far from our experience.
There’s been all that kerfuffle in the news recently about the grave digger at Cheltenham Cemetery who was allegedly opening coffins and taking photos of human remains, before they’re buried.
Well imagine if his defence was, “Well, it happens every day!
There’s always angels coming around,
People in shiny white clothes!
They just walk around the cemetery opening graves,
They pull the lids off all the coffins before they’re buried.”
No, of course not!
That never happens.
That almost never happens
This is supposed to be, unusual.
It’s supposed to make us think, something out of the ordinary is going on here.
Some of my friends say things to me like, “Well I’d believe in Jesus, I’d believe the message about Jesus, if there was some sort of sign, some way to be sure that he really was the way to peace with God,
That he really was legit.”
But then when I say, “Well, have a look at all the extraordinary stuff that accompanied Jesus’ resurrection ”, those same friends sometimes say, “well, I can’t believe in miracles and angels and stuff like that!”
And I want to say, “You can’t have it both ways!”
If you want God to provide some evidence that Jesus was unique,
That he wasn’t just another religious teacher, or crazy nutcase,
If you want some kind of proof that Jesus’ words can be trusted, then make sure you pay attention to the evidence when it’s given!
Look at everything God does, “Jesus is worth listening to”
Yes, this is all kind of unheard of. That’s the point.
That’s how we know that Jesus is unique.
Of course, when this angel, that’s just a messenger from God, don’t think about feathery wings, or chubby babies playing harps or anything like that, all that’s more to do with selling greeting cards than any kind of fact,
The word just means a messenger,
And God has sent this messenger to roll back the stone.
I doubt that God’s instruction to the angel was specifically to roll back the stone and then sit on it!
I think that’s just part of the eye-witness detail. He sat on it!
What would have been an insurmountable obstacle for these women, is nothing more than a spot for an angel to plant his backside.
But the angel didn’t roll the stone away from the tomb, in order to let Jesus out.
You know, Jesus wasn’t sitting there inside the tomb, twiddling his thumbs, looking at his watch, thinking, “Gee, it’s unusual for the angel to be late, he’s usually pretty good with keeping his appointments!” And then suddenly sneak out while the angel distracts the women!
No, Jesus is not there!
The tomb is empty!
It’s not just that Jesus’ spirit has gone out, leaving his body behind, or anything like that,
But that his body has been raised from the dead.
And in a moment, the angel is going to invite the women to go and see the place where he lay. They will see for themselves, that the tomb is empty,
That his body is gone,
That Jesus is not there,
Because he has been raised from the dead.
Rolling back the stone is not to let Jesus out, but to let the eye-witnesses in!
Women were the first to know that Jesus wasn’t there (v 1 – 4)
These women become the very first people to know, that Jesus is not there.
See there in verse 5, The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.
Again, if you’ve ever had doubts about the reliability or the believability of the Easter story, here’s another reason you can be sure that this isn’t fake news;
The first people to be shown that Jesus isn’t there, are women.
In the first century AD, if you were making up a story,
If things hadn’t really gone to plan and you wanted to, kind of fudge it a little,
If you were trying to make the whole, Jesus thing sound a bit more exciting,
Or, let’s put it in today’s language;, if you were trying to peddle fake news, you wouldn’t have women as the first witnesses of some significant event.
This was an era and a culture when the testimony of a woman, was considered insufficient, unreliable.
And when it came to religion, the thoughts, or ideas, or experiences of women weren’t really given any weight at all.
So, Jewish men prayed every day, as countless thousands still do, actually, their Morning Prayer,
Blessed are you, God, King of the Universe, for not having made me a Gentile,
For not having made me a sIave.
For not having made me a woman."
No way in the world, if Matthew was making this up, would he put women on the scene first.
If this is invented,
If this is fiction,
If this is fake news, Matthew would have made up some much more “reliable” witnesses.
Last weekend I read the Roy Morgan “Image of Professions Survey” for 2016. It’s a huge survey of thousands of Australians, about who we find most trustworthy.
And the people that Australians find more trustworthy than any other, are nurses. They top the list for the 22nd year in a row!
92% of us say we trust nurses more than anyone else.
So those of you who are nurses, and we have a few here in our church family, we trust you! Don’t lie to us because we’ll believe you!
I noted that this year, ministers of religion went down 4% to 35%, an all-time low for us! We’re now equal with lawyers! So we’ve got some work to do!
But at the bottom of the list, are advertising people, real estate agents, and car salesmen. Some of you are those, I know, and you are all very welcome at TMB!
But if Matthew’s resurrection account was fake news, trying to be passed off as fact, the first witnesses of the fact that Jesus isn’t there, would have been nurses!
A whole busload of nurses out on a nursing field trip!
Or at least the first century Jewish equivalent, which would have been someone like a priest, or a Levite, or a teacher of the law.
About 150 years after these events there was a Greek Philosopher named Celsus. He was the Richard Dawkins of his day; He hated Christianity, said that Christians should just shut their mouths and get on with life, and he took every opportunity to try and discredit the Christian message.
And in trying to get people to disbelieve the message of Christianity,
Celsus referred to it as “the gossip of women about the empty tomb.”
Unless these women were actually there at the empty tomb, neither Matthew, nor others in the early church would say that they were there.
As out of the ordinary as these events are, we can have great confidence that these events really did take place as we’re told they did.
Of course, it’s not at all out of character for Jesus,
It’s not at all out of place in the story of the gospel, for those who are at the margins of society,
Those who are considered to have little value,
Not considered worthy of respect,
For people on the edges like that, like these women, to be drawn in to the very heart of God’s action in the world.
Jesus is not there, just as he said (v 6)
But notice that moving the stone so that people could see that Jesus has been raised from the dead is not the only task this angelic messenger has been given.
He has a message for these women.
Verse 5, Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.
Again notice, no room at all for us to conclude, that the women were at the wrong tomb, or that Jesus wasn’t really crucified,
The Koran, for example, claims that Jesus wasn’t crucified. “they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him”, it says. (4:157)
This messenger from God says that Jesus was crucified,
It was a real death,
A real burial,
But now he has risen, just as he said.
These women, and the other disciples, who are all cowering in fear in a room somewhere, were absolutely not expecting Jesus to be raised from the dead.
But actually, they should have been.
On several occasions, Jesus had laid out for his followers what was going to happen to him, specifically concerning his death, and his resurrection.
So one example is printed there on your outline, Matthew 16 verse 21, From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
Which is exactly how things have panned out.
Jesus himself said that he would suffer,
That he would die,
And that he would be raised.
the third day is in Jewish counting, you counted parts of days, as days. It’s like when you get a bill from the plumber or mechanic or lawyer, or someone, and they bill you for every half hour, or part thereof.
Even if they only went 2 minutes over into the next bracket, that one gets counted also.
And so, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, the third day, he has risen, just as he said.
Jesus said he would die and be raised,
Jesus knew that he needed to die and be raised,
And the picture in the gospel accounts is of Jesus driving these events towards their conclusion, he set out deliberately for Jerusalem, setting these events in motion.
We need to put out of our minds, any idea of Jesus as an innocent victim,
The pawn in someone else’s game,
Caught up in circumstances out of his control,
Or even worse, the object of some kind of divine child abuse, meted out on him by his Father.
No, Jesus died, and rose, just as he said he would.
Jesus knew it was essential that he die, for that was why he had come.
Those of you who have been with us over the last couple of months as we’ve been working out way through Luke’s gospel account, you’ll remember at various times, when people understood who Jesus was, that he was God’s king come into the world,
That he was God himself, come to be with his people,
When people realised that, most often, Jesus told them not to tell anyone else.
And we think, what kind of king, doesn’t want everyone to know who he is? Even our Queen, Elizabeth, has a Twitter account!
But Jesus knew that the type of king he needed to be, was not the kind of king people wanted.
The people wanted a leader who would get rid of the Romans, build a wall to keep them out, and make Israel great again!
But Jesus knew that he needed to be the kind of king who would die for his people.
He knew that people had turned their backs on God,
People, all people, lived in God’s world, but wanted nothing to do with God,
We all take the good gifts that God gives us, life, relationships, health, peace, but we ignore the God who gives us those gifts.
Imagine someone showering on you every day, innumerable gifts;,
You wake up, and every morning there’s a pile of presents at the end of your bed,
You make your way out to the kitchen, and breakfast is made, all your chores are done for you,
You get to work, or to class, or wherever it is that you spend your days, and that person has already snuck in there ahead of you, and laid out all the gifts you love, the things you most enjoy,
You come back home, to more presents, more expressions of love, more of the good things of life that you most appreciate.
Clearly somebody loves you, very much!
Somebody is committed to your good!
But how would that relationship go, if you took all the gifts,
Opened all the presents,
Enjoyed all the good things you were given,
Day, after day, after day,
But you just completely ignored the person giving them to you.
I can give you a hint as to what’s going to happen to that relationship!
It’s going to be destroyed, and after a while, that person’s not going to give you anything at all!
And the Bible says that all of us are in that relationship.
It’s not an exact parallel, but all of us take the good gifts that God gives us every day, but we ignore God and reject God, and we don’t thank him for all the gifts he gives us, and that he is so committed to our good!
That’s what the Bible calls “sin”;, our rejection of God.
And so God will one day say, “If you want nothing to do with me, then that’s what you will get;, You will be separated from me forever.”
But also the gifts will stop,
You’ll be separated from God, and from all his good gifts, forever.
That’s what the Bible calls hell; Death, and separation from God and from all his many blessings, from everything good, for all of eternity.
And that’s a terrible picture.
But the reason that Jesus dies,
The reason Jesus deliberately drives the events leading to his crucifixion is because he says, “I’ll take the death and separation, so that you don’t have to.”
That penalty for rejecting God, Jesus says, “I’ll take it on myself.”
The hurt and pain of that relationship that we’ve mangled, Jesus says, “I’ll step into that.”
And as he dies on the cross on that first Good Friday, Jesus demonstrates that he’s willing to take the penalty for ignoring and rejecting God that we have incurred.
And because Jesus dies to take away our sin,
To make an end of the rebellion that ruins our relationship with God, and our relationships with others,
It means he offers us an eternity without all the things that spoil our relationships,
Without all the things that I mentioned in the beginning that we know all too well, the pain of death,
The pain of sickness,
The pain of broken relationships, tears and sadness.
In those moments when we might feel that Jesus isn’t there, we can remember, exactly where Jesus was.
He was on the cross, dying in our place, so that we can enjoy an eternity in which those experiences are nothing more than a distant memory.
Jesus offers us all of that.
He says, “believe that I can make you right with God,
Trust that my death in your place is enough,
Believe that you can be forgiven and reconciled to the God who loves you like all that, because I died for you.
The thing is, that’s an extraordinary claim to make isn’t it?
“I can bring you to God,
I can forgive you for your rebellion,
You don’t have to fear death, it’s not the enemy it once was.”
And then Jesus dies,
So how do we know, if what he promises is true?
Well that’s why it matters that Jesus’ isn’t there, in the tomb.
Because Jesus isn’t there, we can have great hope beyond the grave
As I said, I go to a fair few funerals, and my favourite part of the funeral service, if it’s OK to have a favourite part, but the bit I like the most, is when I get to read from John 11:25, where this Jesus says, I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.
Jesus’ resurrection, promises our resurrection.
It demonstrates once and for all, Jesus’ power and authority over death.
Who better to trust with my death, than the person who has been through death, and lived to tell the tale!
When I go down to the Body, Mind and Psychic Fair, why don’t I trust the various New Age practitioners there when they tell me what they think of death?,
When they say death is just an illusion?,
Or death is nothing,
Or when my Buddhist friends, tell me, that death is just a gateway for my spirit to attach itself to some other life, based upon how good or bad I’ve been in this life?
Why do I choose to trust Jesus with my death, rather than them?
Well because he’s experienced death, and beaten it, as he promised he would, and the fact that he’s not there in the tomb is the proof of that.
And because the resurrection vindicates Jesus’ claims, we can trust in the forgiveness that he offers.
How do I know that Jesus really is able to forgive sins,
That he really did die in my place,
How do I know he wasn’t just a religious nut, who said he was God, because there have been plenty of them throughout history!
Well because when religious nuts die, they stay dead!
When crazy people, who claim to be God, die, they don’t come back to life!
The resurrection offers us a great hope, because it means that Jesus’ promises of forgiveness and reconciliation are trustworthy.
It’s interesting in verse 6, the angel says he has risen, but the original language is actually passive. It’s he has been raised.
We’re not to imagine Jesus raising himself, but God the Father, raising Jesus, as a vindication of his claims, and a demonstration of his trustworthiness.
The resurrection is, we could say, God the Father signing the bottom of Jesus’ cheque. “I’ll back this up”, God says, “Jesus is good for what he promises.”
Because Jesus isn’t there, we can be confident of judgment
But also, the fact that the tomb is empty, that Jesus has been raised, that he isn’t there that first Easter, signifies that he’s the one who is going to judge the life of every person according to the standard that God has set.
I have a friend with a brain, I reckon, at least twice as big as mine! He was a Rhodes scholar, did his PhD at Oxford, and now he’s one of the world’s leading experts on the Rwandan Genocide.
You know the history, in 1994, up to a million people, or 20% of the population of that country were massacred over 100 days.
He told me once that for basically everyone involved in that horrific episode, it never even crossed their minds, that one day they’d have to give an account for their actions.
They never thought they’d be judged for what they’d done.
And no doubt, many will escape justice, in this life.
But the resurrection of Jesus says, death is not the end.
Ultimately, we will have to give an account.
There is something beyond the grave, and ultimately there will be justice.
Those people who hurt you,
Take advantage of you,
Treat you badly, and who seem to escape justice,
Death is not the end.
There is more beyond the grave.
The empty tomb proves that.
They will face judgment.
Have a listen to these words from the Apostle Paul, spoken in Athens a few years after this first Easter, For God has set a day when he will judge the world with justice, by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.
God the Father has identified the judge of the world, by raising him from the dead.
Do you see? Jesus is the judge of the world.
Jesus, isn’t there.
The great warning shouted by the empty tomb, is that every sin will be paid for,
Either it’s paid by Jesus standing in our place,
Or we’ll pay for it ourselves.
Bertrand Russell, the famous British philosopher and atheist, apparently once stormed out of an event where someone was talking about Jesus paying for sin in his death. And as he walked out, Russell yelled over his shoulder “I’ll pay, myself. I’ll pay, myself.”
Well, we only need to read the previous couple of paragraphs in Matthew’s gospel account to see the absolute horror of what that would look like;, facing God’s judgment at sin.
That’s exactly what Jesus endured for us.
The resurrection warns us that death is not the end. And either, we face death, carrying the burden of our sin, ourselves.
Or we face death, knowing that Jesus has carried our sin for us.
There was an article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, claiming that “Nobody likes a do-gooder.”
This research found that people who act selflessly, who go out of their way to do good for others, they make
And we don’t like them,
We want to get away from them
If that’s all true, then we might have a problem with Easter.
We might have a problem with Jesus who says, “I’m committed to your good,
I’ll take your death and separation, and endure it instead of you, so that you can enjoy life and peace.”
I think it’s pride, isn’t it?
Let’s not let that get in the way, of responding rightly this Easter, to the Jesus who wasn’t there.